We’ve all heard this parable before: the story of the prodigal son. Jesus uses a parable depicting the mercy of an earthly father towards his rebellious and disgraceful son to show us the mercy of our Heavenly Father. We often teach it to children in Sunday School.
But how often do we forget the love, mercy, and grace of God? When we sin, we are still afraid to go back to God and try to continue His work. Though God says we are completely forgiven, we feel less than and almost defiled. We try to remind ourselves we have been cleansed, but our past sins still weigh us down. We don’t feel capable of continuing in God’s way.
Let’s look at the story. Jesus starts by introducing us to the characters: a father and his two sons. Jesus doesn’t even need to point out which one is the “problem child;” the prodigal son did that through his own actions. In verse 12, the younger son says to the Father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” Similar to how inheritances are done today, a Jew would receive a portion of his father’s possessions when his father died. This greedy son might as well have looked his father in the face and just bluntly said, “Dad, I wish you were dead so I could just get my stuff and get out of here.” That is what he meant. His father had the right to disown him right then, but he did not. On top of this, the father divided his possessions and gave the son his half of the inheritance. The father loved the son, so he didn’t force him to stay if he didn’t want to.
It is obvious what happened next. After moving to a distant (and probably heathen) country, the son “squandered his wealth in wild living” (verse 13). Though now we associate the word “prodigal” with a repentant sinner, the word actually means “wasteful.” Here, most of us picture an eighteen-year-old boy with tons of money and no supervision, but Jesus doesn’t specify an age. He acts so immaturely we assume he is very young, but this man could have been thirty. After he had squandered all his wealth, a disastrous famine hit that foreign land. The son had to sell himself to a citizen of that heathen country just to keep from dying. But even while tending that man’s pigs, he still had nothing. He longed to eat what he was feeding to the pigs! No food, no home, no possessions, and no name—he was alone and destitute.
It was at this point he remembered his father. Verse 17 says it was when “he came to his senses.” Sometimes it takes a hard knock to bring us back to our senses. The son remembered how well his father even treated his servants, and he used to be his son! I am sure the anguish of what he had done was about to tear him apart. The son has nothing, not even hope. He comes up with a plan that he can only pray will work, if he could bring himself to pray. He is going to go to his father, admit his guilt and sin, and then beg his father to make him like a hired servant. Still with no name, no privileges, and no love, but he would be alive. Yet if his father did not agree, it could mean his death.
According to the Mosaic law, if a son did something like this, his parents could have him stoned. One of the Ten Commandments is: “Honor your father and mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 5:16). By returning, the son was putting his life on the line, but he was already dying in this heathen land. He did not have much left to lose. So the son went on his way, rehearsing ahead of time what he would say to his father.
But verse 20 brings the surprise: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” This is a beautiful picture of what God does for us. Even while we are lost in darkness, when we cry out to God, He is there. He does not wait for us to fix our problems or put on a holy attitude. God comes rushing to our side when we call Him for the first time and stays there forever after that.
If the son passed anyone in town or in the fields on the way to see his father, do you know what they were most likely doing? Other than jeering and despising him, they were most likely picking up stones. They knew what the son had done, and they knew what he deserved. But all of a sudden they look up, and there is the father coming at a sprint, making his way towards his son. Running was actually an undignified thing for someone to do back then, but the Father ran, threw his arms around his son, and kissed him, this son that had insulted his father, wasted his wealth, sinned greatly, and had been living in poverty and working with pigs.
The son starts trying to remember his speech, no doubt thrown off by the act of mercy, kindness, and love. The son only gets to the point where he does not deserve to be his son when the father turns to his servants and says, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (verses 22-24) His father loved him so much he immediately forgave him for all he had done. The father never cared about the possessions; he cared about his son. The father loved him before any of this happened, and he still loves him.
This is how our Father loves us! His own Son Who died for us tells the story! He has loved us for all eternity and will love us for all eternity, regardless of what we have done. We were never capable of doing anything on our own. We were always meant to rely on God. When we repent, we can trust God when He says we are forgiven. When we fall, we can have faith God will pick us up. The Lord has promised to help us and never forsake us! There is no exception to this promise. God would not have said it or sent His Son if there was even one person He would not save or one sinner He would not forgive. So when you feel unworthy of your second chance and new start, remember you are unworthy but that makes no difference to God. God loves you this much, and He wants to forgive you! He is running to you, so run to Him!